Director Robert Wise is widely regarded as a journeyman filmmaker with no defining traits or distinct talents. In The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 critic Andrew Sarris famously labeled Wise’s output as “strained seriousness” asserting that the director’s “stylistic signature . . . is indistinct to the point of invisibility.” David Thompson parroted these claims in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film when he stated that Wise’s “better credits are only the haphazard products of artistic aimlessness given rare guidance” and complained that his filmography was merely a “restless, dispiriting search among subject areas.”
While it’s true that Wise explored a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, westerns, musicals, and war dramas, his best films frequently share a gloomy nihilistic worldview. He also possessed the extraordinary ability to evoke career-defining performances from many of the actors he worked with.
A few of the remarkable roles Wise nurtured and helped define include Lawrence Tierney’s ruthless Sam Wilde in Born to Kill (1947), Robert Ryan’s down-and-out boxer in The Set-Up (1949), Michael Rennie’s peace-pursuing alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Susan Hayward’s doomed career criminal in I Want to Live! (1958), Rita Moreno’s spirited and vengeful Anita in West Side Story (1961), Julie Harris’s meek and melancholy Eleanor “Nell” Lance in The Haunting (1963) and Steve McQueen’s solitary sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). But my favorite acting feat in all of Wise’s directing oeuvre can be found in The Body Snatcher (1945). Currently streaming on FilmStruck, this classic Val Lewton production stars Boris Karloff in what is arguably his most accomplished performance playing John Gray, a merciless grave robber with soul-piercing eyes and a bone-chilling grin.
The Body Snatcher is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson that was inspired by the 19th-century crimes of Burke and Hare, two notorious body snatchers who committed multiple murders and then sold the victim’s corpses to The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for dissection purposes. The film adaption broadens Stevenson’s tale of an accomplished doctor (Henry Daniell) and his loyal student (Russell Wade) who become entangled with a grave robbing cabbie named John Gray. It also ratchets up the horror quotient by magnifying the role of Gray as he commits one shocking atrocity after another to supply the doctors with much-needed specimens while gleefully lining his pockets with the ill-gotten gains.
Stevenson’s original text only contains a few words that describe the character of John Gray commenting on the “hang-dog, abominable looks” typical of grave robbers and singling him out as “a very loathsome rogue.” The screenplay, which was originally written by Philip MacDonald and revised by Lewton, reinforces the characterization describing Gray as “a man of middle years with keen, darting eyes set in a face lined and furrowed by an evil life. The quick play of his features as he talks or smiles can form a moving and deceptive mask.” These brief descriptions of Gray only scratch the surface of Karloff’s rich, multifaceted depiction of the sinister scoundrel but they are noteworthy stepping stones that demonstrate what little background the 58-year-old actor had to work with and how much he brought to the role.
Additional inspiration for Karloff’s interpretation of Gray most likely came from another Robert Louis Stevenson story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In The Body Snatcher, the dueling nature of man is represented by the noble, wisdom-seeking Dr. MacFarlane (also played brilliantly by Henry Daniell) while his evil alter-ego manifests as the capital-driven resurrection man. Even Karloff’s appearance in a worn top hat and long cape-like coat is reminiscent of Hyde.
Karloff carries himself with a kind of willful arrogance but his ragged clothes, stooped posture, deep-set eyes, heavy brows, unruly stubble, and unwashed hair suggest a cadaver’s appearance. His John Gray is losing what’s left of his humanity with every swing of his shovel and Karloff wears the weight of the character’s deeds like a suit of rusty old armor. His crimes have become a grotesque badge of honor. He is the Grim Reaper or Charon of Edinburgh driving a hansom cab through cobblestone streets instead of a ferry boat down the River Styx. He relishes the fear he ignites in the hearts of so-called ‘gentlemen’ who buy his profane wares so they won’t have to dig around in rotting cemeteries during the dead of night and risk sullying their good names. But Gray is no mindless lackey and Karloff instills his character with a cutting wit and streetwise wisdom that suggest he is sharper than many of the well-read doctors he interacts with.
If I had to single out one standout acting moment in a film that contains many I would point to Karloff’s final screen encounter with his longtime associate Bela Lugosi who also makes a noteworthy appearance in The Body Snatcher. Bela plays Joseph, a simple-minded and sympathetic janitor who cleans the doctor’s labs. When Joseph becomes aware of John Gray’s nefarious money-making activities he decides to blackmail him but Joseph isn’t prepared for the callous brutality that awaits him once he ventures inside John Gray’s den of iniquity and their interaction takes a particularly macabre turn.
Val Lewton originally did not want to work with Karloff but producer Jack Gross convinced RKO to sign the “King of Horror” to a three-picture deal. Gross hoped the actor’s name would attract audiences but Lewton wanted to distance himself from Universal’s brand of Gothic horror. He was interested in creating modern thrillers with a subtler approach that didn’t rely on lots of monster makeup to terrify audiences. But according to director Robert Wise once Lewton met Karloff the two men became fast friends and developed a respect for one another’s talent.
“Boris Karloff was an absolute joy . . . he was very well educated and well-read, a cultured man with fine manners–soft-spoken, and a gentleman in every sense. He was a delight to work with as an actor–very responsive, very professional. Boris was particularly keen about doing The Body Snatcher. He felt it was his first opportunity to show what he could do as an actor, a fine actor of great skill and great depth.” – Robert Wise, quoted in Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank
When it was released in 1945, The Body Snatcher proved to be one of RKO’s most successful horror films and Boris Karloff went on to appear in two other Lewton productions, Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam(1946). Karloff is exceptional in the three films he made with Val Lewton but in The Body Snatcher, he is a terrifying force of nature. Robert Wise, who was proud of his collaborative working relationships with actors, was able to encourage a truly spectacular performance from the aging horror star that rivals his iconic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. Karloff also had something to prove to these new purveyors of horror cinema who were not particularly interested in his antiquated skills but they shouldn’t have worried. Karloff’s cadaverous John Gray is one of the greatest screen achievements of the 1940s.
If you stream one horror film this Halloween I recommend The Body Snatcher but I suggest pairing it with The Haunting (1961) and Audrey Rose (1977). These chill-inducing movies were all directed by Robert Wise and prove that he was not only adept at eliciting great acting performances from his cast but he also knew how to scare the hell out of an audience.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Note: originally written for FilmStruck and published in October 2017